Heather Ann

While Kelly was the most recent friend I lost to cancer, she sadly wasn’t the first.  I was reminded by a dear friend that today is Heather Ann Sherman-Galasso’s birthday.  It makes sense now that I think about it that these two would have birthdays so close together.  They both were strong, smart, creative, cheerful and compassionate.  Even though Heather passed away 20 years ago, she continues to inspire me.

When I was in the second grade, our teacher partnered with another in a school district to set up a pen pal program.  The school was only in the next town over, but it might as well have been on Mars.  I was matched with Heather, and I loved her instantly.  It breaks my heart that the letters she wrote me that year have been lost over time, but I remember their spirit.  She was so smart, and made me laugh, and I called her my best friend.

Towards the end of the year, the teachers arranged a meeting.  Heather’s class took the trip to visit us at our school.  I remember seeing the big yellow school bus pull up to the front of our building, and feeling so excited I was afraid I might throw up.  She was here! Oh, but what if she saw me and didn’t like me?  What if she thought I was weird? Or boring, or ugly, or stupid?  I couldn’t stand it if she didn’t love me.

This next part I can’t be sure of, but in my heart my memory is that she was wearing a white dress, and she ran to me and hugged me.  That summer, (or maybe the one after?), Heather and I went to summer day camp together.  It’s still true, even now, that Heather was able to make me laugh harder than almost anyone, ever.  Over that summer, we got in trouble a lot, were separated many times because we were making each other laugh and unable to stop, couldn’t calm down or control ourselves.

We ended up at the same high school.  Heather was so brave–she was who she was and didn’t care whether you liked it or not, didn’t need your approval because she was having a great time.  Not that she was a jerk about it at all, she was kind to everyone. High school is stupid, and as the friend who reminded me that today was Heather’s birthday would be able to tell you, the people who are worth loving, who deserve our friendship, our kindness, and our time, aren’t necessarily the people we spend those years with–we miss out on so much.  We are so caught up in trying to fit in, or comforting ourselves because we can’t fit in, that nothing really works.  And by we, I mean me.

I found my safe place in choir and drama.  Heather and I were together in some of those moments and events.  We also took a lot of classes together.  I especially remember Sewing and Health & Family Matters (or whatever that class was really called), and as always, the way she could make me laugh.  There were lots of other moments, and she was always around, we were always around together, but we weren’t as close then as we were when we were younger.  And yet, I continued to love her.

Graduation came and we didn’t keep in touch.  To be fair, I didn’t really keep in touch with much of anybody.  I was going through my own struggles and felt so removed from those years, like it was a whole other life.  I got married too young, moved to Arizona, moved back to Oregon, got divorced, had a long string of bad relationships, drank too much, didn’t sleep enough–was too busy “smashing myself to bits.”  I was so lost.

One day, my mom said, “Did you know that Heather Sherman is sick?”  I had no idea what she was talking about.  She explained that Heather had leukemia and was very sick.  I was stunned.  Just a few days later, there was an article in the paper about her.

I was in shock, and felt like a jerk.  This person I loved so much, I had essentially forgotten.  I was so caught up in my own stink and struggle that she’d slipped away from me.  But now what did I do?  “Hey Heather, I know we haven’t talked in awhile, but I heard that you were sick–you wanna hang out or something?”  After thinking about it, I finally decided that I would write her a letter, give it to my mom to give to her dad (at the time, they worked at the same middle school), who could give it to Heather.  That way, even if she didn’t want to see me, she’d know I was thinking about her.

But I waited too long.  I was still writing the letter when the newspaper published her obituary.  I walked around that whole day in a daze.  How could this have happened? Why was I so stupid, so slow?  The guilt, the shame, the sadness froze me in place and, (I will always regret this), I didn’t go to her funeral.

20 years later, I try to give myself a break, try to forgive myself.  I was only 22 at the time, and pretty screwed up.  And when it happened again, with Kelly, I made sure she knew how much I loved her, and I bought a plane ticket and flew to Kentucky for her memorial service.  I might not have realized how important that would be if I hadn’t made the mistake of staying away from Heather’s.

Heather’s loss woke me up.  I cleaned myself up, stopped dating, moved back to my parent’s house and went back to school.  I wasn’t going to waste my life any more.  Heather didn’t have a choice, but I did, and to honor her, I was going to start living and making better choices.  And I still find myself on many days, when I feel like giving up, reminding myself that Heather can’t, so I have to.

From ‘In Blackwater Woods’

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

~ Mary Oliver ~

  • Who are you missing?  Who are you honoring with your life?

9 thoughts on “Heather Ann

  1. Amy

    Oh, Jill. What a precious gift you have given me. I needed so much to share Heather with someone today — and I could not have shared it with a more loving soul. Her death was my wake up call, as well — as was her life. She took me for who I was and loved me, just as she loved you. She lives on in us. As I was telling my boys about her today, my son said, “I’m so sorry for you loss” — It nearly brought me to tears. But then I smiled, for she will live on in him, too. Blessings my dear friend — both of you.

    1. jillsalahub Post author

      It was so strange, because I was wondering before I read your other comment “what am I going to blog about today?” I’m so glad you reminded me. Love you. Love, Me.

  2. Pingback: Starting Over, Again. « A Thousand Shades of Gray

  3. Audrey Sherman

    Thank you for posting your memories of my sweet Heather. She made us laugh so hard it was difficult to take a breath. Her sister always laughed so hard she got hiccups. I miss her so much. I move forward because I don’t feel I can waste the time I have been given. Heather would have loved to be here longer. Jill, Heather talked those pen pal days with love and excitement just as you described. You have done just what you should with your regrets of not being with Heather or attending her memorial service. You didn’t let it happen again. That is all we can do is learn from experiences. I believe Heather has perfect understanding of everything now,she knows why things were done or not done. Be happy and enjoy life. Audrey Sherman

    1. jillsalahub Post author

      You have no idea what a gift this is to me. Over the years, I have written you letters, real and in my head, that I’ve never sent, telling you how sorry I was, telling you how much she mattered, how much she still matters, how I will carry her with me always, but the regret, the shame always stopped me. I even took a class with Emily at WOU, and never said a word to her, because I just didn’t know what to say. There is a terrible sense of relief and gratitude seeing this comment–I don’t think I can fully express it, all I can do is say I’m sorry and thank you, and I miss her too.

  4. linda sherman bailey

    i’m heather’s sister. i never saw this post when you first placed it, but i want to thank you. i’ve sent it to my sister emily, too. heather continues to impact my life and my choices, and i love the idea that other people were as influenced by her life. my daughter is such a similar light. her godmother’s influence is so present that there are times when i am with her now (she will be 24 this oct) and i want to weep for how much she is similar to her godmom. there is a Stayton High RIP facebook page for posting memories of graduates who have passed, and i didn’t know how to get a techy copy of heather’s obituary. thanks for being the surprise i stumbled upon this morning while i looked for a copy.

    1. jillsalahub Post author

      Linda, I’m so glad you found this post, so glad you left a comment. Even though I wrote it, I still cry every time I read it, still miss and love your sweet sister, can’t help but regret the time I lost with her. And yet, I do what I can now, live my life as fully as possible, help as much as I can, love as much as I can stand, and carry her with me always.


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